Skill challenges were one of the best things to come out of our D&D 4th Edition playtest. Building on earlier versions that appeared in Spycraft and Unearthed Arcana, skill challenges provided an in-game mechanic for resolving non-combat conflicts and complex tasks.
We used it to handle the exploration a lava tube complex leading to a red dragon’s volcano and an escape from an angry horde of goblins on an ice world. In both cases, we found it really enhanced our game, turning what could have another dungeoncrawl or a case of DM fiat into a dramatic, player-driven story.
It’s a good idea, and one we’ve been eager to use in our Star Wars campaign (even our anti-4E contingent wanted to try it). We did exactly that in our third session (“Chapter 3: The Lingering Twilight”), with equally good results.
Crossing the Great Plain of Soros
In the first scenario, while in transit to a swoop bike race in the badlands of the planet Zebulon Beta, the group’s speeder broke down. To repair it, they’d need to pass a mechanics-oriented skill challenge. At the same time, the group’s Jedi would need to fend off two giant lizards attacking the speeder’s crew.
It required six successes before three failures, and had primary skills of Mechanics, Knowledge (technology), Perception and Pilot.
- Mechanics (DC 15) – Our hero tinkers with the machine, trying to coax it back into shape. Requires a tool kit.
- Mechanics (DC 20) – “I saw this on a holovid once… he used some duct tape and a hair pin, but this should do …"
- Knowledge (technology)(DC 20) – Our hero remembers the exact schematics of this particular speeder, and recites them from memory.
- Perception (DC 20): Well of course – the moisture inversion manifold is broken. It’ll have to be replaced.
- Pilot (DC 15): “You know, I had a TR-176 as a kid back home, and when the repulsors went, I remember the mechanic did this…”
Auto Fail skills:
- Strength check: This is a delicate piece of machinery; hitting it won’t help. Instant Failure.
- Use Computer: The computer is labeled “no customer serviceable parts” and shuts down with any attempts to run a diagnostic. It also sends out an electrical pulse that deals 1d6 damage.
The Nightside Rally
The Nightside Rally is cross-country swoop bike race held in Draco Badlands, a stretch of torturous terrain and plateaus carved from the plains by an ancient river, and now prone to landslides and flash floods. Half Burning Man, half NASCAR race, it takes place during the Darkness, a 75 hour stretch of nighttime that falls every two months on Zebulon Beta as its larger fraternal twin Zebulon Prime blocks its sunlight. The race would be run in the pitch black of the Dragon’s Tail Trench, in the form of a skill challenge.
Players would need to secure nine successes before three failures with the primary skills of Endurance, Initiative, Pilot, Mechanics, Deception and Use the Force.
- Endurance (DC 15): Putting everything you have into it, you’re able wrestle the bike into submission, gaining valuable time as others struggle with their bikes.
- Initiative (DC 20): Deftly firing your thrusters at just the right time, you’re able to maneuver ahead of your opponents, cutting them off.
- Pilot (DC 15): You expertly navigate the trench, avoiding your opponents.
- Mechanics (DC 20): The stablizer fin broke loose! The starboard repulser array just went. The river bed dust just choked the main air cooler intake valve.
- Deception (DC 15): A deft feint maneuver or some other trick helps the pilot move up.
- Use the Force (DC 20): Drawing inspiration from Obi-Wan’s spectral ‘Use the Force’ urges to Luke (and Qui-Gon’s the pod-racing Anakin), the Jedi would be able to use the Force to aid their champion through advice, suggestions and other Force-inspired insights.
- Persuasion (Intimidate): There’s little time for theatrics in the trench; attempting such a distraction results in instant failure as the pilot struggles to avoid hitting the trench walls.
Use The Force (and anything else you can find)
The challenges went well. Of the two, I liked the execution of the first the best; the combination of combat and mechanical challenge worked out great, even if the Jedi were pressed hard by their giant lizard opponents.
By default, Skill Challenges usually have one or two poison skills that simply won’t work in the challenge. I don’t always include these, particularly if I want to give the players an advantage, but I do like the idea that there’s one wire out there you shouldn’t cut or one turn of phrase that will get you tossed in the dungeon.
I think the key to coming up with a good poison skill is being able to justify it; in the Speeder Repair challenge, it was perfectly reasonable that they’d try the Use Computer skill to jury rig the speeder. But then again, there are plenty of times in the Star Wars trilogies where our heroes try and hotwire something and it fails, whether it’s Han screaming “No, no no, this goes here, that goes there” when they’re trying to get the Millennium Falcon off of Hoth or R2-D2 accidentally jacking into a power outlet in Cloud City.
In this case I remembered the line about “No User Serviceable Parts” from Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End, and decided that was the perfect poison skill. On this model of speeder, you simply can’t get at the electronics without the proper, manufacturer supplied tool kit.
I think it worked: the look on the pilot’s face when he tried to get at the electronics black box and was shocked for six points of electrical damage was priceless, and it setup a great argument between him and my mechanic character (played partially as an NPC), made all the better by the fact that the Jedi were fighting for their lives.
The Darkside Rally Challenge was fun, but the challenge ended up being frontloaded as the Jedi used their Force talents to gaze into the future, offer insights into possible maneuvers, and generally provide every advantage they could. Going into the race, the party already had three or four successes, as well as a single failure (as they tried to scout out the race path, but weren’t able to gather all of the information they neede).
Highlife, the group’s human pilot, got to drive the swoop bike in the race, which ended up being a mix of abstracted combat and skill challenges. The two lead racers – a human named Boris Ledfoot and a Rodian swoop biker – used dirty tricks like firing blaster shots Highlife or dumping debris in his path. He ultimately one by kicking his swoop bike into overdrive with a piloting check, allowing him to cross the finish line well ahead of the others.
Part of me wishes the race had lasted a little longer, and posed more of a challenge to Highlife’s impressive piloting skills, but honestly, it worked out just fine the way it was. The party gambled on the race, and won a sizable amount of credits, which will help them buy their starship in the not-to-distant future. All in all, it had a nice “Lando bets everything and wins the Falcon” vibe to it, and I’m pleased with the results.